Customer Service Done Right: When an Actual Human Being Answers the Phone

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The ninth circle of customer service hell usually begins with a phone call looped through a maddeningly automated system known as IVR (Interactive Voice Response)—you know, the one in which you “Press 1 to continue in English” and “Listen closely to our list of options, as they may have changed.” Turns out, not all Internet retailers use such systems. Instead, many top retailers utilize what’s known as “live human beings” to answer the phone. Perhaps most surprising of all, the companies that employ living breathing customer service reps to answer phones also tend to have shorter wait times for callers.

Stella Service, a company that rates customer service quality among Internet retailers based on factors such as the fastest response time to customer e-mails, just released a study showing that (surprise!) it’s highly unlikely you’ll hear an actual human voice on the line right away when you call the typical customer service department. Of the top 100 Internet retailers, 79 use automated phone trees that require callers to press buttons or speak requests into the phone—and that often seem to purposefully steer customers in every direction except the one that leads to a human being.

But with 21 of the top 100 Internet retailers, when you call the customer service line, amazingly enough, a genuine living customer service agent answers the phone. No pressing of buttons or talking to a computer required.

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The Internet retailers that pick up the phone are listed below (with their ranking for sales in parenthesis): (#1)
Grainger (#15)
LL (#21) (#33)
Nordstrom (#34)
Neiman Marcus (#39) (#40)
Urban Outfitters (#48) (#60) (#61) (#64) (#67) (#70) (#74) (#75) (#82) (#88) (#89) (#93) (#99) (#100)

Stella Service notes that the #101 Internet retailer, 1-800 CONTACTS, also has live service agents answering phones, and that Amazon is the only business in the top 10 that does so. The rest of the top ten—Staples, Apple, Dell, Office Depot, Walmart, Sears, QVC, OfficeMax, and CDW—all use automated phone menus.

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It’s easy to understand why companies use such automated phone systems: They’re cheaper and more efficient than hiring more people to handle all the callers.

It’s also easy to understand why some companies don’t use such systems: Customers hate them, and, generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to agitate your customers. Consumer expectations for customer service have gotten so low that a company scores some points, and perhaps is viewed even as having superior customer service, simply by the fact that somebody with a pulse answers the phone.

Perhaps the automated systems wouldn’t drive customers quite as nuts if they take up so much time. Many bank customers prefer ATMs to live tellers nowadays because using the ATM is quicker and more convenient. But callers forced to deal with automated phone systems can expect longer hold times when seeking customer service. The average hold time for a customer dealing with an automated system is 1 minute, 51 seconds, according to Stella Service. Customers calling a company that employs live agents to answer the phones, on the other hand, are on hold for an average of just 51 seconds.

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Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.